A West African court has convicted Niger’s government of failing to prevent a 12-year-old girl from being sold into slavery. The precedent-setting case could help thousands of Africans who are still enslaved in Niger and neighbouring states by bringing more attention to their plight, and forcing governments to do more to eradicate the problem.
The state of Niger argued that it had done everything possible to end slavery, which it outlawed just five years ago. But the Court of Justice for the Economic Community of West African States ruled otherwise on Monday. Niger was ordered to pay Hadijatou Mani 10 million CFA francs (about $25,000) in damages for allowing her to be sold into forced domestic and farm labour in 1996 for about $600.
“We are law-abiding and will respect this decision,” Mossi Boubacar, an official for Niger’s government, told Reuters. Critics of the government, however, say the ruling is proof that the government needs to do more to implement laws against forced labour.
Anti-Slavery International reports that 43,000 people are still enslaved in the state (mostly in rural areas), and that the children of slaves are often “inherited” by their masters. The U.K.-based group was responsible for helping Mani, now 24, bring her case to court, where she testified that she was beaten and raped repeatedly by her 63-year-old master. She was held captive for 10 years and bore children while in captivity. In 2005, she was given a “liberation certificate,” but she was arrested and jailed on bigamy charges shortly after when she married another man.
Mani told Reuters that she was “very happy” with the decision, adding that she went to court to ensure that her children didn’t end up suffering the way she did.
The ruling by the panel of judges is binding for all 15 member nations of the Economic Community of West African States. Human rights groups say the ruling is an embarrassment for Niger, which has repeatedly denied that it has a problem with slavery.